As theatre buffs know, Edward Albee's 1980 play THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE is one of Broadway's legendary flops. At that point in Albee's career, the critics didn't think he could do anything right. It's fair to say that he doesn't do everything right in the play, particularly in the overlong, somewhat tedious first act. When the play goes surreal in its second half, it becomes totally absorbing.
At the opening, Sam and his wife Jo are playing party games with their friends. This is an Albee play, so the friends all seem to need and despise each other in equal measure. Indeed, my problem with the play is that I don't believe these people ever were or could be friends, but one of the givens of the play seems to be that friendship is an illusion. What gives this gathering a particular edge is the fact that hostess Jo (Laila Robins) has terminal cancer. She is in great pain and lashes out at everyone around her. It is also clear that her husband, Sam (Michael Hayden) can't deal with the thought of losing her. After the guests have been repeatedly insulted and finally leave, Sam carries Jo, now crying out in pain) upstairs to the bedroom. Enter a glamorous elderly lady and a well-dressed sophisticated Black man and the first act curtain falls. The second act takes us into surreal territory. The mysterious "Lady from Dubuque" claims to be Jo's mother and she and her companion take charge. The friends reappear (where else would they go?) and refuse to believe Sam when he tells them the lady is an imposter. The play moves from verbal to physical violence, particularly directed toward Sam. Sam has to deal not only with the loss of is wife, but with his own lack of a distinctive identity. The crucial question for Sam becomes not who are the strangers who have taken over his house, but who is he? At the end he has been reduced to silence and immobility, a kind of death in life. The Lady from Dubuque and her companion are not only agents of death; they are also agents of truth.
This is not Albee's best play, but it is certainly worth reviving, particularly in a production this good. David Esbjornson has made his actors into a solid ensemble. Laila Robins is both vulnerable and cooly vicious as the ailing wife. Michael Hayden moves effectively from charm to terror to despair. Peter Francis James is suitably amusing but frightening as Lady's companion and henchman. And Jane Alexander is superb as the mysterious Lady from Dubuque. The original Lady, Irene Worth, was magisterial. Alexander is ethereal. She looks gorgeous and can be grand but maternal when she needs to be. She is perfect for the role. John Arnone's set looks lovely but sterile, which is perfect for these characters.
THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE is one of the three plays now running at the brand new Frank Gehry designed Signature Theatre Center on West 42nd Street. This is a lovely space. The lobby is extremely spacious with a lovely cafe and small bookstore and the small theaters are beautiful. It's a great place to experience theatre.
THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE byEdward Albee, directed by David Esbjornson. End Stage Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. March 14, 2012.